This is the fourth in a six letter exchange on the subject of girlhood friendships, sent between Elisa Albert and Nalini Jones. This letter is written by Nalini Jones.
I think it is about boundaries, definitely, but also what comes with them – maybe as simple as the possibilities of candor and grace? Or a kind of graciousness? It seems to me that when I was younger, it was dangerous to be honest with friends about the actual friendship. Other things were okay—by high school, there were regions of white-hot honesty—but to speak too directly to each other: danger. You could hurt yourself or someone else, you could expose yourself as a fool, you could appear (perhaps rightly) selfish, you could hurt and be hurt. You could think, oh, high-school-friend with such lovely hair and clothes and house, but no mother, you are so much cooler than I am, with your unmonitored parties and your prom date from Westport and your strapless dress which you can hold up all by your body’s sheer magnificence: I dare not say to you that perhaps you are pouring hard alcohol into diet soda cans and putting them back in the family fridge because you need something from your father. Maybe he should be around more, rummaging through the kitchen, picking up a Diet Pepsi and learning something new about your National Honor Society self. Maybe it is unfair to you that he’s off in some nearby town with a girlfriend who probably means well, trusting you to sort out way too much on your own. Maybe you should not have to hold up more than a prom dress on your own when you’re sixteen.
It is worth pointing out that this kid did it—thrived, successful career, happy life. She seems in many ways an impressive woman. So is the girl who was my friend for two good years in the muck of high-school, 10th and 11th. We could not drift apart, though we ought to have—different proclivities. But everything was more abrasive than that, an edge of metal shorn-off, sharp enough to tear the skin. In the last of a series of damaging conversations, she explained that my early acceptance to a college to which we had both applied was—let’s be honest, she said—because I was brown. She got in herself a few months later, and went. I chose someplace different. We were friendly through all that; it had not occurred to me to be otherwise. I knew you were supposed to be grateful for friends. You were supposed to be a certain kind of honest, a way that risked as little as possible. You chose what risk you could bear. I think you’re too competitive, she told me once, because we’re always competing. What remarkable logic! And completely unassailable at the time. Because if she could not risk being at fault, I could not risk being friendless.
Not that I was any prize, or any better. At least she said something. At least booze in the soda cans had a kind of flair. I was a series of bad strategies: desperate for approval, too attached to teachers who might offer it, living on caffeine and a kind of churning teen urgency, in hideous need of sleep, and dressed relentlessly, as my history teacher in junior year pointed out, “as a boy.” He did this to be kind and I knew he was being kind. Oh, how I loved him! Still, every day, jeans, long sleeves, a way to hide. For me, the danger was less friends who were girls than the idea that I might be a girl myself, or worse yet a woman someday. I suspected that in an America which prized (prizes) beauty, popularity, a certain kind of ironic ease, I’d be no earthly good at womanhood.
So I didn’t stand up for myself, or even bother to really know myself. I didn’t say some of the things that worried me about myself or other people out loud, for fear of a ruckus. But here is another kind of honesty I would never have risked: pure abject admiration. That would have left me far too susceptible to ridicule. I didn’t outgrow this for a long time. In college, I slipped into the library to read the creative thesis of a marvelous someone, who graduated the year before I did. For days afterwards, I felt amazed. I was in my twenties, a newly minted adult; still, I never told the writer how impressed I was.
If I met again that person today, I would. I revel in that kind of candor now, the kind that allows me to tell my friends how smart, interesting, strong or loving I think they are. That might be how grace comes in. Until I understood myself better, which perhaps meant that until I had developed a way of understanding myself that didn’t center on flaws, it was difficult to see the world or other people with any clarity. I was too busy, cataloging current flaws, hedging against future ones, worried that others would notice I had so many; in times of desperation, hoping that my flaws and someone else’s might offset, even cancel each other’s out. It was a kind of currency, which means, as you say, a kind of need—the bad kind.
Leaving all that aside meant a chance to enjoy people on their own terms. I think that’s how you and I are friends. Less need, more love. Some room to be gracious.
I still can’t really stand the camp girl gets boyfriend, ditches girl friends type—even though you are right about loyalties, marriage, certain regions of privacy and intimacy and connection. But I think the problem with the camp girl type is a kind of reduction of all that to a binary system, in which you ultimately choose your mate (swanlike term) or your friends. Lives are so much bigger than that. We all roll out in so many directions. I think that’s what I feel now, about all my friends, no matter how different they are from each other—a sense of expanding possibility, that I can be fascinated or dazzled or moved by so many different ideas and people. The absolute opposite of training the unruly self to grown in one direction, toward the narrow sunlight of a friendship you think you need. I still don’t like the sort of people who turn up as “friends” only when they are in need. Maybe because need is so effacing? What they really need is someone, not me necessarily at all. I become interchangeable with any other good-soldier-friend. I don’t mind fading a little, but I have to be careful not to shrink myself down the way I used to.
So here is a happy note: I do have friends from high school, two of my best friends, and yes! my daughters know them both as aunts. But we were of a peculiar sort of high school friend, in that we didn’t usually move in the same circles. There was a lot of room to be different, become ourselves. We just persisted in loving each other through all those years, and we go on doing it. Not need, though it can resemble need when any one of us is in trouble or hopes to feel fully known. It’s what you might call a friendship sustained. And the best imaginable luck.
Nalini Jones is the author of a story collection, What You Call Winter; and other short fiction and essays. A recent recipient of an NEA fellowship, Pushcart Prize, and O. Henry Prize, she is currently at work on a novel.